Playoff chances are dimming as Racing Louisville earns another draw

Note: Apologies for being out of commission for the past few weeks. Due to vacation and general life complications, I missed recapping last week’s Angel City match. This recap will attempt to serve as an overview and analysis of both the Angel City and Gotham matches.

“A Tough Week”

In what has become a frustratingly familiar refrain, Racing Louisville earned another draw on Sunday night. This week, it was a 0-0 draw against NJ/NY Gotham on the road. Last week, it was a 1-1 comeback against Angel City at home for Racing’s Fill the Fam event. All in all, they now have nine draws on the season — more than any other team in the league. With the season winding down and only five games left to play, Racing remains in a very tight playoff race, but their chances to make up ground are quickly slipping away.

Some of Racing’s less-than-convincing performance can be tied to the fact that there’s been a lot of roster disruption these past two weeks. Against Angel City last week, Ary Borges, Uchenna Kanu, Wang Shuang, and Savannah DeMelo all returned for the first time since the World Cup. As great as it is for the team to have them back, most hadn’t played in more than a week and had been out of market for the better part of two months, so an adjustment period was necessary. Nadia Nadim also had her first start since returning from injury. Fast forward to Sunday against Gotham, and Nadim, Carson Pickett, and Jaelin Howell were all out with injuries. This pushed Elli Pikkujämsä up to fill the No. 6 position and slotted Rebecca Holloway and Julia Lester into the starting lineup.

“It was a tough week,” said Racing coach Kim Björkegren of the many changes. “I’m proud of our team and how hard they worked. I’m happy with one point even if we need three points. For today, one point is okay in an away game at Gotham.”

Björkegren calling the draws ‘okay’ is correct. They’re not good, but they’re not bad either. They’re just okay. However, this late in the season, okay is fast becoming not good enough and the team needs to shake off some of these lackluster performances and find more of a killer instinct.

This isn’t to say the matches were without positives, however. The fact Racing was able to get a comeback goal against Angel City thanks to the efforts of substitutes Maddie Pokorny and Kirsten Davis is big. Racing also started the match against Gotham poorly but turned it around dramatically immediately at the start of the second half. Also against Gotham, the defense came up big and helped earn their sixth clean sheet of the year despite missing two starters.

“The back four had a really, really good game – defensively we were a lot better,” said center back Abby Erceg. “I said to the girls before the game that we need a little more grit. … Before we talk about anything, we need to make sure the effort is there.”

Racing Louisville huddles after the Gotham match / Image courtesy USA Today Sports

Playoff Potential?

The two points Racing has won through these two draws have been critical to keeping them in the playoff race. After 17 games played, Racing has 21 points and is in eighth place. Even though Racing is tied in points with Angel City, Racing’s positive goal differential is keeping them on top. They also give a small, but helpful buffer between themselves and the Houston Dash (10th) and the Kansas City Current (11th) who have 20 and 19 points respectively.

Looking up the table, Racing is only a single point below the Orlando Pride and has a leg up on them in goal differential. Thanks to Angel City’s defeat of OL Reign, the sixth-place berth remains within a single win as well with OL Reign currently having 24 points. This is part of Racing’s problem, though. They’ve needed to rely on other teams’ wins and losses to keep them afloat. Houston and Kansas City drawing kept Racing from sinking down a spot. Angel City had to beat OL Reign. So far Racing has been doing just enough to keep treading water. As Erceg said, they’ll need to find some more grit and overall resiliency if they’re going to have a shot at the playoffs.

By the Numbers

In both the Angel City and Gotham games, Racing struggled offensively. They created chances, got into decent positions, and just struggled to do anything with it. The most egregious example of this is probably against Gotham when Paige Monaghan sent a beautiful, rolling pass from the end line back to Wang who was standing dead center in the box. Wang received the ball at her feet and paused for a solid beat before attempting the shot. By that point, it was too late.

Numerically, this struggle in the attack is evident as well. In the match against Angel City, they generated 1.25 xG out of 13 shots with 4 on target. Against Gotham, they only generated 1.01 xG out of 10 shots with only a single shot on goal. (Note: all xG stats come from Opta.) This isn’t great.

Racing’s first half against Gotham was particularly bad as they only generated two shots with none on target all match. Compare this to the 10 shots Gotham took in this same period. Gotham was only able to get a single shot on goal out of those 10 thanks in part to solid defending and also just because of luck. Either way, it’s clear Racing’s defense is keeping them in games while their offense struggles.

Passing accuracy has also been all over the place. It was a relatively good 77% against Angel City but dropped to an abysmal 70% against Gotham. Jaelin Howell certainly helped in Gotham because the team plays the ball through her so much more. Likewise, Pickett helps move the ball substantially. Losing both those players plus having new players forced to adjust to starting in their place is clearly taking a toll on the team’s cohesiveness.

Wang and Nadim watch fireworks after Racing hosted Angel City / Image courtesy David Mucker

Key Takeaways

Let’s Talk About Rest

When it comes to managing starters and substitutes, there are two very distinct and separate philosophies. One is that you need to rest and substitute your players often to keep them healthy and to develop team cohesiveness. The other is that your starters should be able to play 90-plus minutes and you play your best players on the pitch no matter what. Of these two philosophies, I fall firmly into the former camp and I think the way Racing’s season has developed has helped demonstrate why.

The idea that you play your best starting 11 with the expectation that they play 90-plus minutes every match fails to account for small, nagging injuries. It assumes players are close to perfect health when it’s not guaranteed they are — especially at this point in the season. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Howell might not be out with a nagging injury if she had been rested more even if it was just through a few of the Challenge Cup matches. It’s possible players would be in better physical shape and less prone to injury if they had been rested more. After all, Racing played all their starters through the Challenge Cup to an extent no other team did. While this secured a spot in the semifinals for Racing and helped keep team momentum going, it might have been at the cost of pushing players to their limits.

Because why not take your starters off at minute 60 in a Challenge Cup match? Even at the half if there’s a tight turnaround. It would have had the added bonus of letting some non-starters get more minutes and build chemistry with the regular starters. This is beneficial so that when starters do go out injured, it’s not as rough of a transition for their replacements to slot in with little or no notice.

Additionally, many World Cup players have been allowed to adjust more slowly back into their team’s starting lineups. Look at Lynn Williams returning for the first time on Sunday as a sub where Wang, DeMelo, and Borges all started and played almost the entirety of the last two matches. It’s clear to anyone watching that none of Racing’s returning players were as sharp or productive as they usually are. Playing as intense of a tournament as the World Cup all the way on the other side of the planet is taxing on a player. They need time to be acclimated back into the club environment.

Of course, the argument about not using the bench unless forced to is that there’s potentially a drop-off in talent after the starters. If the gap is so large that it’s almost always considered unwise to take starters off even after 70 or 80 minutes, that’s a  roster-building problem that needs to be corrected. It’s not healthy to lean so hard on your star players that you risk breaking them through overuse.

In the end, these are philosophical arguments for a reason. There is no obvious answer or it wouldn’t be a debate. Often the depth of a bench pushes teams into the playoffs and maybe Racing doesn’t have the depth other teams have. But even so, pushing players until they’re running on fumes and starting to wilt in every game by the 70th minute isn’t working either and this seems to be where Racing is currently stuck.

Savannah DeMelo against NJ/NY Gotham defenders / Image courtesy NWSL LCC Hannah Ally

Roster Changes

Racing has made a few roster changes in the past couple of weeks.

Most notably, Savannah DeMelo returned from the World Cup and signed a new contract that sees her in Lousiville until 2026. Essentially, the new contract replaces the one she signed late last year and covers the remainder of 2023, 2024, and 2025. Because the NWSL only allows three-year maximum contracts, 2026 was added as an option year. Option years are often contingent on pre-agreed-upon triggers. For example, the player appears in a certain number of games or earns a certain number of minutes. In DeMelo’s case, the club announced that her appearance in last week’s game against Angel City was enough to trigger the 2026 option which extends her through the additional year.

Also notable, but in less happy news, Alex Chidiac has been loaned to Tigres UANL in Liga MX for the duration of her contract which expires in December. Chidiac is an incredible talent and recently appeared in the World Cup for Australia. She had trouble in recent months breaking into Racing’s incredibly dense midfield, however, to compete for minutes against DeMelo, Borges, Wang, and others.

Louisville also parted ways with forward Riley Parker. Parker was selected as Racing’s final draft pick of 2023 and immediately loaned to Tigres for the first half of the season. She returned a few months ago but failed to find any playing time with Racing and has been waived.

Finally, Racing signed two of their national team roster replacement players to permanent contacts. Taylor Aylmer and Maddie Pokorny have been signed for the remainder of 2023. Both have already seen some time on the pitch as substitutes with Pokorny assisting on Davis’ equalizer against Angel City.

Looking Ahead

With the season nearing the end and the playoff race exceptionally close from top to bottom, Racing needs to start getting three points if they’re going to have a shot at a playoff berth. They’ve proven time and time again that they’re a hard team to beat. Now they need to become a team that’s going to win.

While Racing will have the benefit of a home stand for their next two games. The home-field advantage has been significant for Louisville who have won three out of their four wins in Lynn Family Stadium and only lost once. They’ll need all the help they can get, as well, when they take on the Portland Thorns next Saturday.

There’s no question Portland has been a thorn in Racing’s side (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) from the beginning. Racing has never beaten the Thorns in three years and has only ever scored a single goal against them.

To stack the odds further against Racing, they’ll be without Savannah DeMelo who will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation. It takes five yellows to get a suspension and DeMelo has actually received six yellow cards this year: one at Angel City, two versus OL Reign which earned her a red, one against North Carolina, one at Washington, and then one last week at Gotham. If that seems confusing, it’s understandable. But according to league rules, the second yellow received in a match becomes a red card so with that second card removed against OL Reign, she is now suspended with five.

This is far from ideal, considering the health of Howell, Pickett, Nadim, and Jordan Baggett is currently unknown. And with the Challenge Cup semifinal match — Racing’s first-ever NWSL knockout game in team history — coming up the following Wednesday, Björkegren and his staff will have some tough decisions about whether to put in semi-health players against the Thorns or to save them for the playoff match.

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.